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Israel steps up al-Aqsa security as Jerusalem tensions rise

Compound closed for the first time since 1990, according to the Imam of al-Aqsa
Palestinian man prays outside al-Aqsa amidst heavy police presence (AA)

Israeli authorities have shut the al-Aqsa compound entirely in a move dubbed "a declaration of war” by Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.

The compound will remain closed until further notice, the authorities said, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordering a "significant increase" in police deployment in the city.

The move comes after a gunman shot and seriously wounded Israeli right-wing activist Yehuda Glick late on Wednesday. Glick is best known for his lobbying work aimed at partitioning the al-Aqsa compound and allowing Jews to pray there. The main Palestinian suspect in the shooting, Mu'taz Hijazi, was later shot dead by Israeli police at his home in Occupied East Jerusalem.

"This dangerous Israeli escalation is a declaration of war on the Palestinian people and its sacred places and on the Arab and Islamic nation," Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina quoted him as saying on Thursday. 

According to Sheikh Ekrimah Saeed Sabry, the Imam of al-Aqsa mosque, this is the first time that al-Aqsa has been completely closed since 1990 when it was shut for a few days during the First Intifada. However, restrictions have been in place in recent weeks, prohibiting Muslim men under the age of 50 from worshiping there. Other sources, however, contest this saying that the mosque was last totally closed in 2000.

"Israeli authorities shut the al-Aqsa Mosque entirely since dawn," Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Jordan-run Organisation for Muslim Endowments and al-Aqsa Affairs, told Anadolu Agency.

"We are holding discussions to reopen the mosque to Muslim worshippers," Anadolu quoted him as saying. 

Sabry has warned that Palestinians will try to gain access tomorrow for Friday prayers, regardless of the closure.

"Today, no one is entering al-Aqsa. We will wait till tomorrow to see what the situation will be. If they open it tomorrow, there will be no problems. But if the closure continues tomorrow [Friday] there will definitely be tensions and disorder because the Israeli government is responsible for those tensions," he told MEE. 

In September 2000, a visit to the site by controversial Israeli politician Ariel Sharon sparked what later became known as the "Second Intifada" – a popular uprising against the Israeli occupation in which thousands of Palestinians were killed.

Sacred to both Jews and Muslims, the flashpoint compound houses Islam's third holiest site, but is also revered as the most sacred spot for Jews, who refer to the site as the Temple Mount, due to the fact it once housed two Jewish temples.

Although non-Muslims are allowed to visit the site, Jews are not allowed to pray there. Rumours that Israel was poised to legislate changes to the status quo have triggered weeks of unrest and clashes in and around the plaza. 

“The Old City is very tense, 90 percent of the shops are closed," Ofer Zalzberg, Israel-Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based NGO, told the Middle East Eye.

"The odd group of tourists wander by in what looks like a ghost city. A few old Arab men who come to pray regularly are standing outside al-Aqsa mosque in front of the police hoping to get in, they sit next to the barrier."

"Most of the merchants didn’t even come. There were lots of warnings in the media not to come to the Old City today," he added.

The Western Wall plaza, however, remained open to Jewish worshipers, with the area reportedly busy throughout the morning, despite its proximity to the al-Aqsa mosque.

Dozens of Israeli settlers and supporters of ultra-nationalist groups tried to storm the compound on Thursday morning but were prevented from entering by police.  

Small sit-ins by Palestinian protesters have also been reported in other parts of the Old City, according to the Palestine Information Centre.  

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has now ordered a "significant increase" in police deployments in Jerusalem to try and deal with the rising tensions.

He urged the international community to act against those encouraging violence in the city, pointing the finger at Abbas.

"I have ordered a significant increase in forces as well as in means [available to them] so we can both ensure security in Jerusalem and also maintain the status quo in the holy places," he said in a statement released by his office.

"We must first of all lower the flames. No side should take the law into its own hands," he said. 

He blamed Abbas for Wednesday night's attack, accusing him of "incitement" over remarks in which he urged Palestinians to prevent religious Jews from visiting the al-Aqsa compound "by all means."

"I still have not heard from the international community so much as one word of condemnation for these inflammatory remarks. The international community needs to stop its hypocrisy and take action against inciters, against those who try to change the status quo," he said.